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Lions and people in conflict

Lions and people in conflict

A handsome Okavango Delta male lion
A handsome Okavango Delta male lion


By: CAROLYN WHITESELL, Researcher, supported by Elephants Without Borders

 As an apex predator, lion play a vital role in keeping the ecosystem healthy. Conflict between humans and lions threatens both people’s livelihoods and the stability of lion populations.

 Human-lion conflict is often a response to livestock depredation, which can lead to retaliatory killings and negative attitudes towards carnivores. Lion are wide-ranging and frequently cross the borders of protected areas, where they then often come into contact with people. The resulting conflict can have far reaching consequences for the entire lion population within the protected area.

 While the Okavango Delta contains one of the largest lion populations left in Africa, human-lion conflict issues are severe along the western edge. To better understand the drivers of this conflict, as a PhD student in Ecology from the University of California, I am working with support from Elephants Without Borders and Tau Consultants to investigate factors potentially affecting livestock depredation in the Habu Village area. This is a cattle-dominated area adjacent to the western edge of the Okavango Delta.

 The study area encompasses both sides of the veterinary fence, which separates cattle from wildlife. The study focuses on aspects related to lion ecology, their movement patterns and abundance, as well as factors from the human perspective, such as husbandry practices and socio-economic factors. The research employs a variety of methods such as fitting GPS collars on lion to study their movements within the cattle area and across the veterinary fence, recording carcasses of animals killed by lion to examine their prey preference, and conducting questionnaire surveys of farmers in the area to understand the conflict from their perspective.

 Within the last two years, 11 GPS collars have been fitted on lion, including lionesses and pride males. All of these have been recorded entering cattle areas on multiple occasions. Four were killed by farmers in retaliation for livestock losses. The incidents were reported to the Department of Wildlife and National Parks by farmers and the collars were returned to the research team, highlighting the cooperation of the community with this research. While these incidents are unfortunate, they show the need for implementation of conflict mitigation techniques in the area.

 The carcasses of over 50 livestock killed by lion were found and recorded. All these were killed near the veterinary fence, outside kraals. There have been multiple instances where lion have killed between three and five livestock at the same time, right next to each other, and have only actually eaten one or two. Given the difference in behaviour between livestock and wild prey, the potential damage lion can cause to livestock in an area may be greater than if one were to simply calculate how often and how much a lion needs to eat.

 Lion in the study area do show some avoidance of the cattle area during times of human activity, but this avoidance is certainly not absolute. In one instance, a lioness with two young cubs remained in the cattle area for months. She was the last remaining member of her pride, all the others lost to conflict. The timing of her prolonged stay within the cattle area coincided with the arrival of a new male coalition close to the veterinary fence, in the wildlife area.

There is still a lot more work to be accomplished and data to be analysed. My goal for this research is for the findings to inform the development of methods to improve farmers’ livelihoods while conserving lion and other carnivores in this area of high conservation importance.